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   Jacket 31 — October 2006        link Jacket 31 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Manhood and its Poetic Projects:

The construction of masculinity
in the counter-cultural poetry of the U.S. 1950s

Provenance: An early version of this paper was given in 1996 at the National Poetry Foundation conference on the 1950s held in Orono, Maine (USA). It was subsequently delivered at a conference in Athens (2002), at the University of Arizona (2003) and at the University of Florida, Gainesville (2004). A version treating Ginsberg and Olson only was published as ‘Manhood and its Poetic Projects.’ In The Periphery Viewing the World, ed. Christina Dokou, Efterpi Mitsi, Bessie Mitsikopoulou. Selected Papers from the 4th International Conference of the Hellenic Association for the Study of English. Athens: Parousia Publications 60, 2004: 159-181.This piece is 18,000 words or about 36 printed pages long.

paragraph 1

The works of Beat and “New American” poets of the 1950s were overtly counter-cultural and counter-canonical.[1] They were made on the periphery of American culture by people in chosen and flaunted marginality to the center at the moment of the fixing of the Cold War, the fixing of United States post-War hegemony, and the construction of influential intellectual and cultural analyses justifying these global politics.


The most dramatic instance of cultural marginality was Charles Olson’s; he gave up two relatively centrist career paths (in the Democratic Party and in the university), to propose an alternative United States-ness and an energetic geo-cultural vision.[2] Olson emphatically did not accept “the Americanization of the world, now, 1950; soda pop & arms for France to fight, not in Europe, but in Indo China, the lie of it,” a prescient statement about the global penetration of U.S. products, globalization, and the forthcoming War in Vietnam (Olson Origin, 9).


Allen Ginsberg, who brought the Popular Front politics of the 1930s forward into the 50s, is well-known for his visceral, principled identification with the deviant Others — people in minority cultures, internal exiles for political reasons (communists, anarchists, anti-Bomb radicals), exiles for psychological reasons (the dissident/ odd, psychotic, crazy, or driven mad), as well as the sexual exiles and outcasts (mainly male homosexuals, also the sexually promiscuous, and others who do not enter the family economy).


Robert Creeley, rather uninterested in these overt realms of socio-politics, nonetheless engages many of the normative gender tokens of the 1950s — home, family, breadwinner, wife, and husband, exploring the fissures and ironies within their putative seamlessness. All three poets, variously, investigated United States culture; they resisted “mere aestheticism” of the arts, wanting to integrate social critique and energies with artistic expression “as the wedge of the WHOLE FRONT” (Olson, Origin 95; 11). Their poetry and poetics were proudly peripheral, stylistically non-conforming, and intellectually outspoken.


These poets’ ideological, cultural, and political critique of the “American century” also implicated gender.[3] Their writing is notable for its various but considerable opinions on manhood. Thus not only being male (a fact), these poets often championed strong-minded, pushy, outspoken, feisty, shrill, self-consciously posing and even hysterical masculinities (as ideology) — in contradistinction to the more buttoned-down, centrist manhoods normalized in the 1950s. They constructed a dissident and analytic subjectivity on the periphery of their culture, including critiques of masculinity, yet simultaneously they claimed the powers and privileges of normative manhood.


It has been often noted that it is difficult to talk about gender without tumbling into binaries, especially when the people you’re talking about deployed them, sometimes assiduously. Maleness is hardly one totalized thing. Ideologies of manhood and of masculinity are not single. All of the manifestations of gender are historically variable, affirmed, selected from, reaffirmed, and deployed even if these manifestations sometimes proceed under the rubrics of “nature” or “the natural.” Further, one’s sense of the meanings and practices of a gendered self may change over a lifetime and inside a poetic career.


Peter Middleton has suggested (1991) that we should view men’s poetry as men’s poetry, not as a universal, unmarked poetry, thus “reading the work reflexively as a negotiation with dominant masculinities, the promptings of a male body.”[4] Of course immediate difficulties present themselves: what is “a” male body? what, as has been asked in feminism about women, are “men”? and why does one negotiate only with “dominant” ideologies and not, also, with peripheral or emergent ones? These questions complicate the tasks of marking maleness in poetry, a task already so large and intricate that one might also be tempted to shrug it off as both obvious and overwhelming.[5]


Traits and inscriptions of gender may also be personally and historically mobile and differentially deployed. So, too, rhetorics are mobile. There is, for instance, a carefully constructed artless and “unthreatening poetics of sincerity” that is feminine, as Barbara Johnson has argued about the 19th century Marceline Desbordes-Valmore (Johnson 1998, 112). Yet there is also a carefully constructed poetics of sincerity in Ezra Pound or Robert Creeley that is masculine in implication, involving clarity beyond baroque or obfuscatory blurriness. Transgressive excess in Sylvia Plath (as Michael Davidson has argued) might perform female protest with a masculine twist; in Charles Olson, transgressive excess may signal a masculine imperial or appropriative imagination, or, in Allen Ginsberg, a male feminine protest. Note too the investments of the gendered critic in these findings, as no critic is neutral, although we are still trained to see ourselves as relatively pure lenses. These observations suggest that with gender figuring both in assumptions and in findings, in the critic and in the object of scrutiny, it is hard not to find the hermeneutic circle dizzying.


Perhaps the key word from Peter Middleton was “negotiation” — something that extends to critical negotiation among social, ideological, biographical and poetic variables by proposing not feminist production (that is, writing based on opinions one might agree with), but rather feminist reception — the investigative willingness to follow trains of thought offered by poems and to see where they lead in gender terms. Feminist reception as a tactic of the cultural studies of poetry will try to analyze gender inscriptions in literary works, in the poetic career, and in movements and practices.


Another importance of Peter Middleton’s remark is its deuniversalizing claim. Universalizing the male subject “den[ies] the presence of sexual difference” for males (Johnson 1998, 124). Bringing poetry by men up to scrutiny as possibly negotiating with masculinities in specific and with gender in general is a move that shatters the ideological invisibility of maleness in all its varieties. To mark the male — the formerly unmarked gender category — mandates the end of any universalizing category with its unspoken powers; thus it is a version of critique.[6] It is quite wrenching to give up the privilege of this “universalist” subjectivity. As Myra Jehlen has remarked: “In proposing gender as a basic problem and an essential category in cultural and historical analysis, feminists have recast the issue of women’s relative identity as equally an issue for men, who, upon ceasing to be mankind, become, precisely, men. Thus gender has emerged as a problem that is always implicit in any work” (Jehlen 1990, 265). Criticism makes that implicit “problem” explicit by choice, desire, and need.


Hence a feminist criticism can and has involved more than gynocritics (study of women authors) and gynesis (study of the inscription of the feminine in art works). Investigation of maleness is feminist work. Studying gender inscriptions in work by men is feminist in its sources and implications.[7] To say the least, such work must self-consciously position itself as deeply rooted in feminist, gay/queer, and other kinds of gender-inflected thought. Such criticism suggests that in artistic production not only artworks are produced but many kinds of social relations are represented, reproduced, and encouraged. Despite all difficulties, there is no doubt that we need as assiduous and politically acute, as deconstructive, skeptical and suspicious analyses of male subject positions as of female.


Over the past years, Michael Davidson has pursued this work with his study of homosociality (1995) and with a subtle historicist reading of “the intersection of cold war geopolitical issues with gender” (2004, 21). He shows how the subjectivities formed in poetry are not expressive or “testamentary” but are “a site or matrix of competing tendencies” — in this case the claims of hegemonic, binarist gender norms and alternative, perverse gender positions (2004, 21, 3). Davidson’s emphasis on the construction and performance of male gender, masculinity, and homosociality interlinks with my emphasis here on the implications for gender transformation and for the place of the female, given the claims made by various poets as they renegotiated maleness. In his perceptive reading, Davidson proposes that in these counter-cultural poetry groups was born a new homosocial male subject, who mainly enacted this bond in textual (not sexually expressive) ways. Hence in many of these poets, their bond with each other was “homo-textual” — normatively heterosexual and yet affirmatively homosocial (Davidson 1995, 198; now in Davidson 2004, 14, 9). This “boy gang” had both a revolutionary and a repressive component (Davidson 2004, 16).


Creeley, Olson, Ginsberg, like other counter-cultural United States male poets of the 1950s, engaged ideologically to bring “masculinity” and normative male expectations up to scrutiny. These poets aggressively displaced kinds of hegemonic masculinity by using mobile gender materials, fascination with male display and emotional minutiae, and (in Ginsberg’s case) a critical, though not necessarily self-critical, homosexuality. Indeed, in their own ways, they participated in the “male revolt” that Barbara Ehrenreich identifies as a muted sociological motif throughout the 1950s, a critique of the “breadwinner ethic” and its economic arrangements (like family wage) (Ehrenreich 12-13).


Yet a general observation of Australian sociologist R.W. Connell can apply to this cohort of poets. They’re “fighting against hegemonic masculinity while deploying its techniques.”[8] For part of the fallout from their homosocial ethos was that, in their work of the 1950s, the poets also implicitly or explicitly reject the possibility of making a bilateral gender critique, thus excluding women from the benefit they (the males) got from destabilizing gender norms. This resistance did not necessarily apply to some women’s attack on the sexual norms of the 1950s, where there were benefits (as well as problems) for both genders to what was defined as “promiscuity.” In their negotiations with orthopedic, straight, right, correct, hegemonic masculinity, these poets attempted to alter male roles without making “femininity” and female roles budge much, if at all. This exclusion was unconscious, perhaps sometimes somewhat conscious; it was unthinking or half-thought; it was uncritical, and perhaps sometimes deliberate; it was innocent, and sometimes maliciously motivated. However, this is not a study of mixed motives particularly, but of ideological inscriptions in texts. In this key element — the desire to alter male possibility but not question female social positions — this peripheral cohort participates in centrist thinking.


Further, one might see the manhood they were collectively, and differently inventing as an imperial expansiveness in the counter-cultural mode. Allegorically speaking, the center claims the goods of the periphery but ignores the periphery’s co-equality and right to power. Thus, to “gender” Edward Said’s work on culture and imperialism and construct a mechanism for feminist reception, we could say that these male poets “deconstructed and demystified” the male “center” but neglected to continue the critique by inventing “a new system of mobile relationships” to change power relationships between center and periphery that might moot those terms entirely (Said 274-75).


This geo-political language should remind us that the decolonization of women, across cultures and nations, is one of the struggles recommenced in this post-War period and that Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949, in English 1953) was a major salvo in the decolonization of women. We could also say, perhaps invoking a binary logic, that the poems of these particular male poets “othered” men — that is, put certain men into the position of being marginals, often critical marginals. This is accomplished powerfully and compellingly in key texts. But in their work, often enough female figures were recast as normative, centrist, controlling, a place they occupied not so much in power relations as in ideological fantasy. That is, a generally binarist logic prevailed, even despite some (biographical) female “exceptionalist” companions in the counter-cultural realm. One might, in an exculpatory mode, say that no one can critique everything at once. But the point remains.



Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” was written in 1955, coincidentally the same year that Disneyland, California opened. “Howl” is seriously anarchic in ideology: no law, norm, rule, sense of decorum goes unassaulted; it is principled in its negation of post-war normalcy via an apocalyptic pessimism, not Whitmanic optimism. If Disneyland is centrist, “Howl” speaks from peripheries. Disneyland offers nice, sanitized rides, beneficent controls, and unthreatening sideshows, a carnival purged of the perverted, deviant, and criminal “carny.” In contrast, “Howl” speaks of endless rides across a landscape, endless drug, spiritual, and sex-induced highs, and crashes. One contains and commodifies pleasure; the other is outside behavioral constraints or control, seeking a somewhat imperial infiniation of ecstasy.[9] Ginsberg’s “Howl” offered a radical critique of the conformism and denials of the 1950s; the “beats” (who had formed around Kerouac and consolidated with this poem) were depicted as declassed men, sultry and intellectual at once. When the poem was performed by its writer, the poet himself embodied the ecstatic heightening and counter-cultural negativity, and the rip-out of repression was both shattering and liberating.


The first section of “Howl,” now often anthologized, is a symptomatic catalog of individual incidents consolidated as if depicting the sequential activities of a whole cohort of young men. It strikingly uses the Whitmanic list as a mode of community formation and consolidation. Section two is an insistent ritual diagnosing and exorcising the socio-political disease — Moloch — or a Goya-esque capitalist-militarist monster. As Judge Horn saw it in the decision he rendered in 1957 (in the obscenity trial) that “Howl” was protected “social speech,” the poem indicts “materialism, conformity, and mechanization leading to war.” Section three eulogizes one exemplary man, a patient in a mental hospital, and verbally explodes asylum walls in a way that appropriates bomb anxiety and makes a cataclysm of the world that produced this, and other forms of politically-sanctioned madness.


“Howl” is a post-war poem that insists on the almost unspoken trauma of the United States’ use of the atomic bomb on civilian populations, along with the totally unspoken fissure of the Nazi-fascist Holocaust for Ginsberg as a self-consciously, if secular, Jewish poet.[10] In perpetual extremis, the wandering characters listen “to the Terror through the wall,” and their orgasmic highs plus the aura of “kind king light of mind” descend vertiginously, becoming the “crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox” (Ginsberg CP, 126). Both bomb and the War are explicitly present at the end of the third part in which electric shock treatments and allusive citations to the national anthem of the U.S. become fused with apocalyptic after-time and the destruction of institutions of containment: “I’m with you in Rockland [the mental institution]/ where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself imaginary walls collapse … O starry-spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here” (Ginsberg CP, 133).


The work is post-apocalyptic act, assuming that we are living beyond end time — a moral, political, sexual afterwards that is not simply aftermath, but defines a totally “new time,” in the terms James Berger sets forth in After the End. The poem invites all the excluded peripheries to stream into the new-time center: anti-war pacifists, homeless wanderers left over from the 1930s, addicts using just about every drug imaginable, gays closeted or not, visionaries without specific religion, people experiencing psychotic breaks, the suicidal, the radical, the communist, and those turning the tables and “investigating the F.B. I,” comic dada energizers, all who are “madman bum and angel beat in Time” (Ginsberg CP, 131). The “best minds” have become crazed and “hysterical” — a feminizing word to apply to men — having to confront “the scholars of war” and what passes for normalcy (Ginsberg, CP 126). Insanity (as socially defined) is viewed either as a higher form of sanity or as a hermetic key that opens a true analysis of socio-political reality. Beat has a variety of meanings from exhausted to exalted, from aggressed upon to pulsating, from defeated to struck and transformed, all of which make a rich, cultural amalgam of intense authority from the fusion of low and high. Ginsberg united these sexual and political outcasts on the page of his poem as an act of challenge to the status quo. His syntax supported this goal by some phrases that transcended syntactic containment and thus created new fusions by stylistic fiat. Sometimes these fusions revealed little local bits of irony, humor, and self-judgment that made the poetic surface emotionally lively and intellectually compelling; “Howl” is not simply a relentless jeremiad, but one scintillating with the delicate intimacies of its linguistic combinations and with amused self-regard amid the ecstasy.


What was that normalcy? A small primer, with just a few letters, can remind us of the history of the United States 1950s.


A is for Affluence. Abundance. Atomic Age. Advertising. Adjustment. “Affluence… with its cognate connotations of flow, flux, fullness. … In the Fifties it was assumed to be a national condition… ” (Gitlin 12). Meaning: cheap gas, cheap cars, an increasingly TV-focused culture, land-grab suburban housing (racially segregated), interstate highways, malls. For many white people this was an unprecedented prosperity, an imperial prosperity. In the 50s the US moved “from production to consumption, from saving to spending, from city to suburb, from blue- to white-collar employment, and from an adult to a youth culture” (Breines 2). In its own smug version of a new time, painful social problems were going to end: The end of serious illness. The end of class. The end of poverty. These uninformed claims inflated a sense of U.S. (though almost solely white and mainly male) power.


B for the boom of 1945-1973. Brown v. The Board of Education, 1954. Bus Boycott, Montgomery, Alabama, 1955, begun when a tired and fed-up Rosa Parks did not move from her seat for a white man, and the bus driver called the police. B is for Blacklist, gunning for the American left. B for Boys’ Clubs--everywhere; women professionals, leaders, doctors, business managers, judges, senators, professors barely exist; it’s as if they never did and never could, either. B is for Baby Boom (“More babies were born in 1948-1953 than in the previous thirty years.” Gitlin, 13). B is for the Bomb.[11] (USA exploded one in 1945; Russians in 1949.) Ban the Bomb activities were marginal, but extremely far-seeing. At the dead center of the 1950s, mid year, mid-June 1955, members of the War Resisters League refused to take cover in a civil defense test — which was a criminal offense. They were activists Dorothy Day, Bayard Rustin, and cultural figures Julian Beck, Judith Malina, and Jackson Mac Low.


C is for CIA destabilizings and covert operations in at least Iran, Guatemala, Greece, the Congo. This, with consequences intended and unintended, is still creating the history of our contemporary world.


A — don’t seem to be able to get away — is also for anxiety, of which the 1950s is advisedly the “age of,” an undercurrent of strain, political apprehension, inchoate critique underneath a bright surface.


F. Fifties as inverted Thirties: anti-Popular Front, the “immaturity” of socially conscious art, and yet the strong influence from proletarian art on Ginsberg and Kerouac. Thomas Hart Benton’s line and shape to Jackson Pollock’s. Free World. Fallout shelters. Friendly witnesses (before HUAC): “naming names.” FBI agents visited Black Mountain College periodically, to question (and harass) Olson (cf. Butterick, Correspondence, vol. 9, ix). This can indicate all later attempts, as Allen Ginsberg has noted, of the “Exemplary Shockers & Smoking Typewriters” or the “grand master plan for disrupting political minorities & specific instances exemplifying these conspiracies.” (Ginsberg, FBI/ Bureau of Narcotics Files, 1968-70; ts.)


In the 1950s primer, A. B. C. this was the American, or Best Century of “democracy, prosperity, invincibility” (Breines 5). But H — ”Howl” — harried this claim in every particular. In Ginsberg’s legendary poem, democracy has to account for the amoral, rebellious and marginal others, enraged, ecstatic and mourning. And the poem details poverty and vulnerability, because of the enormities of Moloch (or the abnormal normal society). Through “Howl,” Ginsberg (and his peers) claim the responsibility of being the anti-type of the American 1950s.


In the Cold War context, there was, according to J. Edgar Hoover (the redoubtable FBI director), Senator McCarthy, and other right-wing polemicists, an “enemy within.” “Howl” is a poem that accepts and twists to advantage that callow designation: you want an internal enemy — communist, homosexual, radical, feckless, irresponsible, “sick” — we are it. The poem rejects political and psychic norms, identifies with the mad, with the Cold War enemy, with criminal culture, eulogizes drugs, and idolizes men rejecting both sexual and economic “normalcy.”[12] “Howl” eulogizes both hyper-masculine and feminine men. It praises the declassed intelligentsia and the intellectual/crazed obsessive; it affirms the impulsive lumpen and delinquent; and it turns repeatedly to sexuality, promiscuously depicting bi-, homo-, and hyper-hetero-sexual acts. In short, the power of “Howl,” ideologically, is the attempted dissolution of center by periphery.


The textual villains in “Howl” are not the socially deviant, but the center, with its powerful institutions of control and containment: “the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism,” “the sirens of Los Alamos,” “Madison Avenue,” the “foetid halls” of asylums, and the anti-ecstatic “Moloch” — the Canaanite God of Fire to whom children were, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, sacrificed. The whole second section is devoted to excoriating this figure. “Moloch the vast stone of war!… Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks!… Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!” (Ginsberg CP, 131-32). Moloch is a negative force, patriarchy, the war machine, institutions of confinement (factories, jails), the government, or totalitarian conformism.


Indeed, the repression of ecstasy and male (often gay) sexuality expressed symptomatically by Moloch’s “granite cocks,” leads to “monstrous bombs,” because this hyper-hardness without orgasm can only be relieved by explosions of atomic proportions. This is emphatically a critique (even a somewhat comedic critique) of the repressive features of patriarchal authority. In “Howl,” normative masculinity is finished; the poem is entirely in the peripheral subject position of the male outcast ecstatic. A new vulnerable maleness takes shape, evincing an uncontainable, unfixable sexuality — promiscuous, vulgar, sometimes polymorphous, aggressively homosexual, and rather more tepidly heterosexual. The subversion of Ginsberg’s poem was enormous, because it represented a hyper-sexuality which took shape, in the poem, as frank, specific, affirmative and excited depictions of homosexual sodomy and oral sex, with a strong bent toward sexual receptivity.


The gender anxiety of white men was central to the culture of the 1950s, and poets like Ginsberg, with his excessive hysterical rant, seemed its worst nightmare. Given that the traits of new “white-collar occupations” paralleled “traditional feminine personality characteristics” (Breines 31, drawing on Ehrenreich), and given that the famous “other-directed” male worker in bureaucracies and corporations--according to David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950)--was conformist, cooperative, pleasant, willing to please, adaptable, avoiding conflict, it is clear that middle management manhood was in flux, and that certain elements of stereotypical feminine compliance were, at least in theory, necessary to normal men in the 1950s. (I cannot stop to comment on the ways more complex social and economic mechanisms were immediately transposed into the temptation and threat of feminization.) In any event, the questions what constituted manhood, how it could be upheld and maintained, and what forces (homosexuality, effeminacy, passivity, sexual receptiveness) undermined it across this fluid border were serious themes in middle-brow social thinking throughout this period, along with geo-political scare words like weakness, subversion, undermining, deviousness that could as easily apply to stereotypes of homosexuals as to “reds.”


However, the force of the subversion of normative 1950s values in Ginsberg’s poetic text was gender-coded as if for men only. Its alternative value system of revelation and nakedness did not specifically include female agency and desire in what it represents or depicts.[13] While eulogizing critical and acting-out male figures, “Howl” has very terse, even tense allusions to female figures. They appear briefly as three shrews of fate, two of whom condense sites of 1950s normativity in “the heterosexual dollar” and in sexual reproduction, while the third “does nothing but sit on her ass” and repress real intellectual creativity (Ginsberg CP, 128). A female figure appears as the oedipal mother in a brief taboo allusion (“with mother finally ******”) (Ginsberg CP, 130). And females occur as some random waitresses and “innumerable lays of girls” (this does not mean songs) on the road (Ginsberg CP, 128). While male figures in “Howl” have many activities and outlets (from sexual to mental, from critical to ecstatic), the female figures are far less particularized, and they essentially have no heads. The heterosexual acts are often as grim as those female “snatches,” and never as textually vivid as homosexual sodomy.


The poem “Howl” thus basically disparages its female figures. It is therefore passively uninterested in whether women are part of the critique of American society it offers, but the poem actively, sometimes disdainfully suggests that females are part of the forces of containment. Looking at the gender narratives in “Howl,” we see a 99 and 44/100 % male world, a world of comradeship, homosocial bonding, homosexual lovers, and male-male ejaculatory happiness and flare. Female figures in “Howl” are offered a narrow band of reviled or pitied emotion, without capacity for transformation.


Despite this textual situation, in their reception of this work some non-conformist women became charged with inspiration by this counter-cultural vision of resistance. Cross-gender identifications in (at least) female reading strategies have been a very common and important tactic for the consumption/ reception of art works. And why limit this to female interests? Reading itself may be fundamentally a queer practice. In any event, from the evidence, Beat sensibility made a notable contribution to the liberation of women despite the misogyny of Beat denizens. Some young women of the time connected to an amalgam of liberatory demands from an “on the road” mix of Ginsberg and Kerouac.


Winni Breines has argued that dissident [white] girls in the 1950s “utilize[d] and adapt[ed] male versions of rebellion and disaffection,” identified with “outsiders, hoods and greasers” and the “oddball” rebels in Beat subcultures as well as with the increasingly mainstream disobediences of rock and roll (Breines 130). She sees as notable the way “males were the inspiration” for this muted female revolt and sees some of this inchoate dissidence emerging as feminism about ten years later; indeed, she argues that the young women, although the “girlfriends and fans” of Beat men, more deeply “wanted to be them” (Breines 137-148; 147).


In another analysis of the reception of Beat material, Fanny Howe comments devastatingly on the contradictions for women in the Beat world: “It was a man’s world, even out there on the edges beyond convention. It was the men who broke themselves at the margin. It was the men who were loud and famous. The women I knew then shuffled barefoot at perhaps a farther edge — the edge where anonymity either creates subversion or self-annihilation” (F. Howe 199). A more optimistic refraction of Beat importance in 1950s culture, despite gender attitudes, is chronicled in a 1994 letter by Anne Waldman, included in the long poem Iovis, Book II. Responding to a woman who had asked about the “‘boys’ club mentality’” of the Beats, Waldman acknowledges the general misogyny in their early writings (Waldman 145), but goes on to remind her interlocutor that “the Beats are popular because they represent an alternative… to the status quo. An antithesis to bald commercialism, selfishness, spiritual vacuity, political advantage, double-dealing, lying, dishonesty, racism, general all-around uptightness” (Waldman, 143). This is a moving reaffirmation of the argument of “Howl.” It also suggests that a text can open the possibility for gender critiques it does not itself make, indeed, that it resists making.


In our 50s primer, C is for “containment,” a geo-political theory and activity of the 1950s. (Davidson also points to this material; we are both drawing on cultural histories of the 1950s, which currently feature discussions of this ideology.) Containment operated internationally in the universalized struggle against the Soviet Union and against both freely chosen and imposed communist or socialist political systems. A them vs. us (U.S.) mentality, first terrifying, then became chronic. The anxiety was invasion, infiltration, undermining, sapping; science fiction dramatized this by fantasizing about “aliens” invading — another A-list A word.


The post-war international policy of containment has been metaphorically applied, in some socio-cultural analyses, to the lived relations of males and females. Although “containing Soviet aggression” often meant containing autonomous liberation movements and civil wars, the “domestic version of containment” in Elaine Tyler May’s phrase, proposed a strict, idealized, and ideologically normative set of sex-gender roles (complementarity, sexual repression of women combined with mild encouragement to sexual expressiveness, legal inequality, double messages of all kinds) (May, cited in Savran 7). These are still powerful texts in the 21st century, the subject of both nostalgia, parody, and disgust. If the U.S. in the 1950s was a “culture of containment” as Davidson argues generally in Guys Like Us, this meant protection of the white and male core against deviant forces: strong women, male feminization, blacks as icons of difference, and homosexuality imagined as weakness and perversion (cf. Breines 10).


While “Howl” proposed the uncontained male, and thus male figures who seemed critical, it posited women as incidents along the way, or as icons of containment. To have maleness shift to absorb feminization, sexual “deviance,” and otherness is a very large social gain in ranges of subjectivity — for men. Unconventional forms of maleness, othered maleness have been posited as vital in this powerful poem. For the imaginative new masculinities emerging on the peripheries of U.S. culture of the 1950s, the feminine and certain flamboyant male display are interesting and attractive for men, but not interesting when attached to women.[14] Nor was female border-crossing — strong or masculine women — viewed as engaging; indeed, this kind of female challenge to gender norms was reviled and taboo. The net gain in mobility is for men; in this worldview, the female has far more limited gender options.


K is for The “Kitchen Debate” of Nixon and Khrushchev in Moscow, 1959. The two world leaders hectored and heckled each other over the model American kitchen, trying to best each other and toast each other at the same time. It was a nasty, staged moment, in a “get tough on communism/ capitalism” mode. They could not agree even to disagree, except when K. said “Let’s drink to the ladies.” N. responds affirmatively: “We can all drink to the ladies.” So they toast the waitress. Here the two pugnacious representatives of two rival world systems could agree. So--To the Ladies, that icon whose deployment solves, or covers over, all contradictions between whatever center you are and whatever periphery you want to excommunicate (Savan, 31). Because the “ladies” are subordinated but iconized, one may drink to them safely and disturb absolutely nothing.


M is for Mad. Ave. [That’s Madison Avenue, symbolic home of the advertising industry in New York City.] Mad Mag. Middle Class. McCarthyism, a climate of anti-leftist purge and hysteria against liberalism in key US institutions — labor, government, university.[15] M is also for Manhood from the Marlboro Man to the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.


Robert Creeley’s interest in exploring gender makes him tell a richly ambiguous story of orthopedic manhood in his early poetry of the 1950’s decade; he explores “masculinities” in Michael Kimmel’s studiedly constructivist terms. “Manhood is neither static nor timeless. Manhood is not the manifestation of an inner essence; it’s socially constructed. Manhood does not bubble up to consciousness from our biological constitution; it is created in our culture” (Kimmel 1996, 5). The landmark collection For Love, Poems 1950-1960 is distinguished by Creeley’s antic, unbowed, playful, appropriative attitude to gender anxiety and its components in the formation of the male subject.[16] To speak biographically for a brief moment, For Love, Poems 1950-1960 spans two marriages, and at least two other sexually-charged relationships with women; Creeley was divorced from his first wife in 1956, connected with his second companion a few years later.[17] Creeley said retrospectively that he first “married (mistakenly) in the hope of securing myself emotionally” (Essays 368). Baldly, he followed the post-war prescription of early marriage for family, adjustment, and gender roles. Marriage (proposed by “experts” “as the prerequisite for a healthy family and sexual life”) appears in For Love as an ironized and fondly criticized institution--in such works as “The Way” “Ballad of the Despairing Husband” (E.T. May in L. May, 158).


That normative relations, as celebrated in these twisty lyrics, are ineffectual in achieving conformist goals, we see in such tonally duplicitous stanzas as: “She walks in beauty like a lake/ and eats her steak/ with fork and knife/ and proves a proper wife” (“The Bed,” FL 66). The doggerel-laden Byron allusions, harrying a famous romantic line, and the cheap off-hand rhymes, destroy any solemnity here. Many of these poems simultaneously mock and sentimentalize the marriages in which the poet participated. The poet/speaker is courtly and critical, angry and urbane.


Any number of these poems alludes thematically to domestic situations and abrasions — the surface of this “mistake” arrives in comic disarray, both literal and allegorical. In “The Crisis”: “Let me say (in anger) that since the day we were married/ we have never had a towel/ where anyone could find it… ” (FL 19), this bohemian disorder becoming a point of pride. Other times the allegory presents idealized woman, castle, stronghold along with the rueful, delighted mock courtly “My love’s manners in bed/ are not to be discussed by me” (“The Way,” FL 72) or the “My lady/ fair with/ soft/ arms… ” which modulates into existential query very fast, showing that those “fair lady” sentiments are simultaneously crucial and inadequate (“A Token,” FL 123). Creeley’s poems in For Love undercut the whole topos of the unattainable “white goddess” female via the accessible, possessable (or at least discussable) term “wife,” and further undercuts all, while using such rich literary sites as the Petrarchan “fair lady” topos and romantic longing.[18]


In “Going to Bed,” like other of the marital poems meditating sex, adultery, desire, potency or suspicion, the lines “think to understand if/ the last time you looked/ you were still a man” bespeaks the desperate, self-regarding, or ironized question with a cool frankness (FL 95). “Being a man” is not simply maleness, but an ideological manhood and sexual potency that are constituted again and again as the central ground of the poems, claimed, lost again, investigated. “Soon everything will be sold/ and I can go back home// by myself again/ and try to be a man” is a statement about trying and trying to be that difficult thing (FL 117).[19] In his 1989 essay “Autobiography,” Creeley is perfectly explicit about this concern in both his life and his work in this early period: “Clearly what I needed, and probably still do, was a sense of what constitutes manhood” (Creeley 1989, 43).


Many poems in For Love approach the problem of choosing appropriate gender role (husband, father, head of household) and falling aslant of those roles, never definitively solving the problem. Various tones then ensue: pride, bitterness, irony, rage, poignancy, drollery, bafflement, off-hand surviving despite it all. Manhood, in early Creeley, is a site at which the figure precisely conforms to the Petrarchan “experience of fragmentation, wounding, or loss of psychic intactness and control” (B. Johnson 1998, 124, following Vickers). However, each wound is recuperated by investigative scrutiny; Creeleyesque manhood is constituted in the powerful investigation of the wounds of manhood.


Creeley, like other counter-cultural male poets of the 1950s, was trying to make “masculinity” and male expectations change or be brought up to scrutiny. In this task he was understandably invested. However, he was interested in investigating and even changing masculinity without making “femininity” and female roles change much, if at all.[20] The poem “Wait for Me” exemplifies this ragged, half-critique, as it is told in alternating voices (FL 43). One voice, italicized, is like an advice book or normative article about marriage, stating, crudely, an answer to Freud’s oft-cited, exasperated question “what do women want?” In this poem a woman wants to have a man whose “manliness” is not in doubt, and a home, so she won’t be alone. The second voice is the male’s, agreeing that he wants the same “only/ … more so.” But within the same lines, that same voice denies what he has just affirmed in affirming her position: “You/ … think marriage is/… everything?” Thus in the more mobile male voice, attitude and tone slide across several conflicting positions; that voice ends by saying “Oh well,/… I said,” an unreadable resignation, a throwing off of the issues, or a temporizing. The two genders, wanting what is apparently the same thing--marriage, are in fact quite out of sync.


“Wait for Me” –the title — appeals to one to catch up with the position of the other. The only off word in the poem — and of course it is a key — is “hypocrisies,” suggesting both are playing roles, manipulating the other. But gender inauthenticity and severe normativeness seem particularly located in woman; to claim manhood in these poems, one “throws” any such “hypocrisy” off, resists what the female figure brings. The poem looks like a dialogue; voices are even visually intertwined on the page. However, the content privileges the more mobile and critical male figure because he is able to enunciate a variety of opinions. This whole poem shows a characteristic approach to and backing off from final statement. You can see a male position constructed for the speaker, the shadow of “hegemonic manhood,” but you also see the speaker sidling up to this position, putting a foot in, removing that foot, backing off, entering it, resisting it. Because the male speaker moves in and out of several positions about manhood, this shifting motion gives the energy of critique without actually any critical statement about gender arrangements being made.[21] This energy is particularly located in the poem’s hesitant, non-phrasal linebreaks.


The poem “The Invoice” (itemized bill of money owed, coming due) is a self-parody about roles. It consists of three stanzas, two heavily invested in norms: the speaker’s letter to a man asking for money and a letter presumably to a woman asking for love or a relationship: “dearest M/ please come./ There is no one/ here at all” (FL 86). This last is a double statement about the sexually needy speaking subject and about an empty, missing, erased subject. He is depicted as wanting the most banal gender goods: manly money and womanly filling of his loneliness. Here is the third stanza:


I got word today,
viz: hey
sport, how are you making it?
And, why don’t you get with it.

          (FL 86)


This stanza isolates the speaker as not man enough in two ways, financial and sexual. The burden of this stanza is rejection from both genders, pointing to the emptiness of the speaker, his lack of success in both homosocial bonds (borrowing money) and heterosexual bonds (seduction). Both voices respond that they owe the speaker nothing; his “invoice” fails.


By constructing a speaker as an outcast from these gender norms or stereotypes, Creeley illustrates the position of critique (outcast), but he has not challenged the norms. The stanza contains two rejections, both playing on hip colloquialisms (suggesting the letter respondents are more “with it” in hipness than the speaker), and both using the open deictic “it” (as if a play on the needs of the speaker). The line break after the word “hey,” making the word that follows be read ironically, is particularly pointed in the judgment of manhood: he is a “sport” or deviant, not a sporty guy. However, using “viz,” the visual abbreviation for videlicet (which means namely; or literally, it is permitted to see), has the effect of proving the poet’s competence — in language (in the enunciation, the poem as artifact) — at the same time that his speaker’s incompetence in relationships is reiterated (in the plot inside the poem, in the enounced).


This outcast figure, mocked by both interlocutors, is one type of male hero within lyric poetry, for telling the story of male inadequacy (yearning, displacement, hurt, pleasure in another’s cruelty to one, or in rejection) is part of male poetic power. An intense comment by Barbara Johnson may be germane here: “why is male masochism the secret that it is lyric poetry’s job to keep?” (Johnson 1998, 123). Yet poetic competence, linguistic cunning and wit are the compensation for this self-announced set of patterned rejections.


The structure of manhood in early Creeley can also be explored by Lee Edelman’s analysis of the plot or the moves around maleness. (Note that Edelman is making a critique of this plot, but the garish outline is helpful.) A man is self-divided into a dominant-masculinized male and a submissive-feminized male — a kind of binarist cohabitation inside of one subjectivity. The masculine half demands conformity of the other half, demands the other half “submit.” (Actual women are occluded here; they are secondary players in a male story of self-fashioning, again involving masochism — but to the feminine in oneself). Thus to be normatively male is to police yourself for the feminine; a sense of power is the reward (Edelman 27-28). Since, in this explanatory narrative, men must police themselves, one result is that men can be seen and can see themselves as victims of patriarchal power, not only as agents of such power (Edelman 27-28). However, there is a counter narrative too: one might negotiate with that feminine vulnerability and also emerge with a sense of power. This seems to be the goal — and the wit — of Creeley’s early poetry.


Vulnerability as power in Creeley emerges in an unusual poem, one with a distinctive frankness about gender. For Creeley was certainly one of the first people of any gender to mention Modess (sanitary napkins/ sanitary towels) in literature, indeed, to talk of their purchase. In the 50s, there was much more shame around menstruation, much more denial than now, and thus the large and bulky brown or blue wrapped packages of that necessity were supposed to be “invisible.” This was also a product for which the advertising in the 1950s was euphemistic to a startling extreme, showing beautiful, bejeweled women in gorgeous evening gowns, and with the ad copy saying only “Modess… .because.” Because what was unclear until menarche; the ad bifurcated the female body ideologically into an unspoken, sometimes messy underside and brilliant, showy, even fetishized control.


In contrast to the ideology of containment and invisibility in the popular vision of menstruation, Creeley’s poem “The Lover” is invested in expressive messiness, here the stain of a possible blush--but of the male body. The poem debates what honest stance to take up to a male’s helpful, but embarrassed purchase of this female necessity. “What should the young/ man say, because he is buying/ Modess? Should he// blush or not. Or/ turn coyly, his head, to/ one side, as if in// the exactitude of his emotion he/ were not offended? Were/ proud? Of what? To buy// a thing like that” (FL 41; whole poem). If a man is sent to the drugstore on that mission of purchase it means he is trusted, he is convenient, he is sexually active, and he is mobile, that the woman is not pregnant, and that she has the power to ask for the favor, but is also needy (menstruating and can’t go out without a Modess! thus slightly immobile) or lazy, or forgetful (didn’t she know she might need Modess?). In other words, the situation preceding the poem, very non-normatively evoked in the word “Modess,” is already an efficient nexus of gender dynamics.


This poem shows a male figure, self-consciously debating what attitude to take up, what relationship he has to his own manhood, how he embodies it, given a woman’s physical womanhood. At first the speaker debates taking on a feminine coyness in a male body (blushing and drooping), and then on assuming half-offended annoyance. Finally, he takes another position — of exploration of all these moves, discovering the “exactitude of his emotion” — which nonetheless remains deliberately opaque to the reader. Manhood is often expressed in early Creeley as a vulnerability (to nuance of emotion) which is a form of power. We see Creeley constituting male pride in this ability to debate which attitudes to take up (what “should” he do with the embarrassment of this purchase?). Among those attitudes, a blushing girlishness is all the more appealing in the body of a helpful male. To state “buy// a thing like that” is unreadable in tone — it seems to combine a gruff sense of exposure and an abashed pleasure to be that intimate with a woman and still not lose male power. The speaker first takes up the feminine and then ends with an obfuscated male pride. He is at all ends of a gender compact, and the title “The Lover” — on one level a straightforward title alluding to his place in a heterosexual couple — becomes a pun on his narcissistic investigation of his various positions, a self-wooing of himself as blushing, coy man by himself as self-debating man.


It is a poem that might well illustrate Barbara Johnson’s stark finding in her discussion of Baudelaire that “masculine privilege is enforced precisely by male femininity” (Johnson 1998, 127). Why is this? Possibly because both genders can be effectively positioned without accounting for the divergent and potentially destabilizing impact of historical women, their own complex and conflicting relations to femaleness, femininity, and womanhood. More? The assumption of femininity is a way for men to speak that claims vulnerability, weakness, sweetness, even powerlessness. The male feminine is a friendly way of denying, obfuscating, or cushioning the impact of male power, both inside the speaker and to the observer/reader. Creeley along with the men about whom Michael Kimmel speaks “seem to be looking for power rather than reveling in their experience of it” (Kimmel in Brod and Kaufman, viii). [22] For many men do not feel that they have any particular power. Indeed, men can feel a disjunction between their “aggregate social power” and their “individual experience of powerlessness,” a disjunction that they manage in various ways. (Kimmel in Brod & Kaufman, viii). To the observer, such a stance seems genial, while to the user it is a way of disowning what happens elsewhere (not in his subjectivity, not in the poem) in the affirmation of male power. After all, all men in the real world are not responsible for what some men do in the name of manhood.


The male-feminine is emphatically a critique of rigid patriarchal ideology; it also increases male gender range, as Barbara Johnson suggested. In Out of Bounds, Laura Claridge and Elizabeth Langland similarly propose that a male writer “experiences the patriarchal construction of his masculinity as a constriction. He may, that is, appropriate the feminine to enlarge himself, a process not incompatible with contempt for actual women” although, one might add, these are features not necessarily linked (Claridge and Langland, eds., 4). [23] The force of Creeley’s work comes from this contradictory tension between vulnerability and power, his interest in establishing the hegemonic rules of manhood, ones he at other times debates.


Debate across a border expresses itself continuously in Creeley in his sharp, syntactically unusual line breaks, fissuring statement across phrasal syntax. In a primitivizing poem called, flatly, “The Man,” male anxiety about hurt, borders, containment, danger is spoken thus:


He toes is broken
all he foot go
now. He look

he hurt bad, see
danger all around he
no see before
come down on him.

           (FL124; citing final two stanzas of three)


The anxiety about bodily integrity, wounding, attack, fear makes a poem called “The Man” an allegory about weakness and danger.[24] The archetypal “Man” in this poem feels “danger all around,” a danger “he / no see before,” one that makes him speak an ironically primitive diction — as if, once he has suffered this corrosion of his body, the Man became non-native to his own language. One grammatical mark of this primitiveness is the initial substitution of he for his — the subject for the possessive pronouns, something that makes the emergence of the object pronoun “him” extremely expressive at the end of the poem, evoking the powerless objectified state of “the man.” He has been attacked; he has been weakened (“feels much better/ lying down” is one non-orthopedic couplet in the first stanza). He thereby speaks like a stereotyped colonized man (Native American? Black person? pidgin speaker?), not a hegemonic man. The socio-political impact of danger is manifested as capitulation: the crossing of a grammatical border into the language of Others — but persons who (like the “primitives” the language produces) might be gathering strength for an unknown push back. These diction choices help to establish an apparently mobile subjectivity.


As well, Creeley sometimes uses his stanzas serially, so that different stanzas take up different ideological positions; thus one is never sure whether any conclusion, as in “The Way,” apparently ringing with normative advice about marrying, is not unstable or ironic. In the many shifts in his lines and stanzas, Creeley can express and exemplify tension, wariness, a simultaneous resistance to normalcy and an evocation of normalcy in love relations and gender expectations. The jagged line and its extreme shortness (so one line jumps quickly to another), the shifts in ideological position among the stanzas (so that a poem manifests several opinions) suggest, for Sianne Ngai, spatial displacement in relation to anxiety.


Speaking about anxiety and male subjectivity, Ngai offers the generative observation that anxiety, with accompanying disorientation, dizziness, and “an experience of suspension or delay,” is the price paid by the male subject in his quest for adequate knowledge or understanding (Ngai 2001, 17-19, 15). This anxiety is projected or relocated onto others from the self — the throwing of anxiety outward — an effective strategy to “reinforce the boundary between center and periphery, and thus the distinction between ‘here’ and ‘yonder’ on which the experience of threat depends… .” (Ngai 2001, 16, 18). Creeley works with deferral and delay in the formal mechanisms of poetry, a “thrownness” in syntax, line, and stanza; sometimes as Ngai observes, the thrown material stays attached to the other. But more interesting is the self-reflexive way that in Creeley, the cast off material boomerangs back. Sometimes the speaker takes up a confrontative position as “the other” — the pidgin speaker, the bad husband. He then throws those positions far from him, ejecting them, and yet moves the speaking subject over to inhabit those positions. This contradictory displacement and embrace explains how Creeley can simultaneously be critical of the materials of manhood and be apparently invested in them.


Another kind of moment occurs in a Creeley essay summing up investigative manhood in the fifties: “On the Road: Notes on Artists & Poets, 1950-1965 [1974].” This essay ascribes gender to experiment and innovation; it states that women cannot understand the process-oriented mode of new art. Even when actual women are reasonably intelligent and ask appropriate questions — in this essay the women are Ann Creeley [McKinnon] and Robert Rauschenberg’s unnamed wife — they are not swift to comprehend the possibility of praxis; they are aesthetically conservative. Creeley’s anecdote uses gender difference to underscore a marked difference in poetics: a woman wants the expression of prior, already-formulated intentions; a man’s more adventurous (and now more influential) terms are practice, curiosity, attentiveness, energy. Further, the women do not assimilate and work through the sense of inquiry and motion that generated the work of the new arts of the 1940s and 1950s: abstract painting (Franz Kline) and free poetry (William Carlos Williams) (Essays 374-375).[25] Hence this essay ends with an unmotivated throw-away line, self-mocking and yet abrupt in its gender narrative: “You’ll have to tell mother we’re still on the road” (Essays 376).


These female figures are construed as maternal, confining, and anchored, immobile, the site of all manner of psychic baggage that one must cast off. The male practitioners escape by evoking the famous “on the road” gender narrative of free men, practicing a homosocial wildness (with occasional sexy females present). Some women in this universe are indeed intense, capable (in Creeley’s general narrative there are always a few, like Diane di Prima) — but the men of whom Creeley speaks are always more intellectually mobile, have greater intensity, more capacity for poesis. [26] Creeley never excludes women from his sense of “company,” a recurrent and evocative word firmly in his lexicon, but in this 1974 assessment looking back on his early career, he depicts most women as disqualifying themselves. For in this world, something happens inside women (though apparently not ever in their interaction with men) that results in men having to constitute themselves as artists by leaving women behind. In his later career, Creeley’s “company” became markedly more gender-expansive.


Being on the road is the implicit narrative in one of Creeley’s signature poems, and a defining poem of masculinity in the 1950’s: “I Know a Man.” Here are two men, or perhaps just one, self-divided, talking to himself, in a car. This is certainly a poem of masculine self-instruction toward forming a new company of men in motion. One of these men is wishing for a bigger car, perhaps one with those tail-fins of the 50s, chrome and consumerism to brighten a sense of pain and anguish. Night driving takes on symbolic resonance as marker of inchoate anxiety: “the darkness sur-/ rounds us, what// can we do against/ it” (FL 38). The poem is similar to Olson’s “In Cold Hell,” in that the solution is continue to do what you are doing, but in a more mindful way than before, with greater alertness and intensity. This in the elegant confrontative “drive, he sd, for/ christ’s sake, look/ out where yr going” (FL 38 ). The two men are fraternal equals. Yet the friend is underknown, the speaker is said to call him by the wrong name, the common name, the very name of “man”: John. John has advice, and it is the advice of “outward”: to drive in the here and now (no matter that you want a bigger car), and to “look/ out” — a double idiom, meaning not only caution, but attentiveness, a gaze at what is.


The poem is an allegory of poetic style, a poem of poetic self-instruction not to hunger for bigger, more bombastic rhetorics. Instead, subtle investigation of one’s own emotional articulation is achieved through line breaks. Three lines over four stanzas offer the opportunity for eleven line breaks, and in this poem the line breaks constitute meaning as thoroughly as overt statement does. The line breaks are made by the rupture of very closely-knit elements: subject and verb (I// sd), possessive pronoun and noun (my/ friend; his/ name), parts of a verb (“sur-/rounds” or look/ out); preposition from object (for/ christ’s), splits of an interrogative phrase (what/ /can). These construct, through a specific poetic mechanism, the splits in subjectivity, the self-questioning that constitute the poem’s meaning.


One phrasal line break (as if from banal free verse prosodies) is offered as a solution “why not, buy a goddamn big car.” That’s one form of manhood; the other is, of course, “where yr going.” This valued manhood is simultaneously a jagged, situational attentiveness and a claim of power in motion signaled by the shifts along the line. Line break, as well as statement, propose an ideologically freighted contrast of noun — as affirmed possession, stasis, suburbia, and consumerism (“big car”), versus the verbal as dynamic and admonitory process (“yr going”). Opposing visions of manhood are poised in this poem. Line breaks invite the reader to value fraternal responsibility and modesty and to resist affirmative hegemonic maleness.


Yet tough-guy manhoods are present in the diction of the poem, for goddamn enhances and admires that big car even as the car is rejected. As well, a tough masculine ideology is signaled in the swift colloquialisms of sd and yr that come, in part, from Ezra Pound’s example in his swift, instructive letters — the orthography is clipped, busy, tough-minded, no blabbing, no bellyaching: a manly shorthand — get on with it (so to speak). As well the “yr” fuses the possessive (your) and the positional (you are) as a double way of manifesting and affirming one’s mobility (“going”). All this has been dubbed the manly “hard-boiled style”: “a carefully controlled blend of colloquialisms, terse understatement, objective description, all narrated in a detached tone” (Pfeil 109). It is Creeley’s tact to use this style for a lot of enthusiastic, volatile meditation, a lot of male emotion, a lot of domestic feeling. Indeed damn, goddamn, and fucking are expletives everywhere in the Creeley/Olson letters, a dynamic, formative correspondence. The energy of the male-male encounter between Olson and Creeley, that stuff of legend, emerged as two vulnerable and voracious men engaged in self-fashioning by inhabiting a broad-band aggressive verbal maleness.


In the introduction to his edition of the Selected Poems of Charles Olson, Creeley speaks of the year 1950 as an epistemological break, symbolized by a shift in gender relations. “What changes immensely in the few years separating Williams’ Paterson from Olson’s Maximus is the literal configuration of that world which each attempts to salvage. All previous epistemological structures and, even more, their supporting cultural referents were displaced significantly, if not forever, by the political, economic, and technological transformations following the Second World War. The underlying causes were well in place at the turn of the century but by 1950 the effects were even more dominant. There could no longer be such a ‘father / son’ disposition of reality as either Pound or Williams, tacitly, took as a given of their situation” (Creeley in Olson 1993, xviii). This statement links ideology and culture to major socio-political transformations, including ones in gender relations.


Yet Creeley’s comment raises many ancillary questions. First, this shift in gender materials is imagined only within male-male relations; there is no comparable curiosity about women and their situation, whether, for instance, they experienced a post-war shift as well. Second, these male-male relations are now presumably non-authoritarian, horizontal, dialogic, egalitarian, and neither law-bearing nor invested with the issue of oedipal challenge and replacement. This would be revolutionary if true. But even if not true, the statement indicates some of the transformative gender claims at stake for these poets. They wanted a new psycho-political world of manhood. [27] So, finally, Creeley’s version of this new egalitarian world for male gender is supported in the selection of Olson that he edited by the exclusion of two of Olson’s most important poems: “I Mencius,” a reading of Olson’s relationship with Pound as poetic patriarch and “Lordly and Isolate Satyrs,” a poem of hyper-masculinity, and hierarchic ranking.[28]


Robert Duncan debates this account in a lecture on Olson (given February 1982 at New College). In ways similar to Creeley’s theoretical linkage of poetry, ideology, and material conditions, Duncan calls Olson’s poetry “a record of our times… a deep record of a hidden man’s house from which this poetry comes. Something more than the picture is that society is patristic, but Olson’s was in an entirely patristic world. I mean, the figure of his father is huge in his mind and then Maximus and then the huge father figures that appear, bigger than all that, are amazing in his poems” (Sulfur 36, 26). Patristic means specifically relating to the fathers of the early Christian church and their writings as establishing canon, interpretation, and institutions. It also may be Duncan’s way of acknowledging or playing with “patriarchal,” a word most prominent in feminist cultural analysis in the 70s. It may also be an allusion to the loyalist allegiances characteristic of Olson’s committed followers in the decade immediately following his death. In any event, the debate between two significant participant-observers of the impact of Olson turns on interpreting the version(s)/ example(s) of manhood he promulgated and embodied.


Walter Benjamin remarks about Baudelaire: “Baudelaire’s readers are men. It is men who have made him famous; it is them he has redeemed” (Benjamin 332). This remark is equally suggestive for Charles Olson. There is no doubt that Olson has presented a particular problem in reception for some readers, and it is worth recalling this with a few examples notable for their frankness and clarity. One of Marjorie Perloff’s very first published essays announced a cordial resistance to Olson on the grounds that there is nothing new in him — the claims he made in his poetics had already been said by Pound (Perloff 1972). The men whom Olson redeemed found this essay extremely contentious and seemed astonished that Perloff would dare to make such an argument. She reflects on this more than twenty years after the original essay, provoked by a new rebuttal to, or attack on her observations by Ralph Maud. “I now understand my original animosity (and its current residue) as having everything to do with Olson’s patriarchal stance… ,” she says. She indicates that Olson’s inability to see “that the woman poet or artist might be an equal” made it difficult to see through the cult and the “pure adulation the Olsonites gave their hero” to any appreciation of his originality in poetics (Perloff 1995, 36, 34).


The discussion of Olson by Susan Howe also points to his contradictory heritage. After hearing conference papers by two of Olson’s committed commentators, Don Byrd and John Clarke, Howe remarked: “I am a poet. I know that Charles Olson’s writing encouraged me to be a radical poet. When I was writing my first poems I recall he showed me what to do. Had he been my teacher in real life, I know he would have stopped my voice.” Then, playing on her status as a “respondent” to conference papers: “Can daughters ever truly respond to factors that come into play in such a patronymic discourse?” (S. Howe, 166, 168). She follows with a cited catalogue of intensely misogynist passages by Olson and then balances this impression with some other citations. “When he is at his best, frontiers are in constant flux” (S. Howe, 172).


Charles Bernstein made a characteristically witty and trangressive critical move, turning the foundational Olson essay “Projective Verse” on its head to produce a manifesto called “Introjective Verse” — something that mocks the vatic intensities, the exhortation to speed, the dogma by sheer enthusiastic push to rediscover the virtues of the minor and the “feminine” — the “inessential,” the “miscomposition,” the looping loopiness — and of course he genders the poet “she” throughout (Bernstein 1996 and 1999, 110, 111). This continues Bernstein’s assessment of Olson, notably The Maximus Poems (beginning with the publication of the major essay “Undone Business” in 1984) which simply proposes: “Women’s voices — by which I mean not a product of biological gender but of socially-mediated attitudes, circumstances, syntaxes — are completely marginal to The Maximus Poems. The image is of men speaking to men — and all who fall outside that discourse are simply inaudible” (Bernstein 1986, 326). This is not a criticism of the significance of investigating maleness but rather the observation that “for Olson ‘maleness’ is patriarchally assumed to be an ‘all-inclusive’ term for significant human experience by dint of an unacknowledged reduction of the nonmale to insignificance” (Bernstein 1986, 328). Bernstein’s essay is resonant with the concerns of my writing here, which precisely desires the investigation of manhood as it enters poetic texts and practices but the acknowledgement of the necessity for bilateral gender critique.


The gender narratives emerging in Olson’s 1950 essay “Projective Verse,” stood out to me, undergirding, as they do, an essay that generations of poets have, for very compelling reasons, found inspiring (DuPlessis 1996, 2006). Olson’s “Projective Verse” contains enthusiastic pep talks to the “sons of Pound and Williams,” like a coach to his team, a prophet to his followers, a general to his troops (Olson 23; DuPlessis 2006, 84-87). In this influential work, poetry and poetics are gendered male, property of the “brothers,” or the “boys,” carefully segregated from any implication of equal participation of the female. Curiously, this gender segregation of poetry occurs despite the strange appearance of an unexplained female “ear.” The “ear” that emerges briefly in this essay is an occluded allusion to an actual, though unnamed, woman, Frances Boldereff, who had a defining place in Olson’s early career.[29]


The Olson manifesto rings with its own homosocial enthusiasms and poetic exhortations “There it is, brothers, sitting there, for USE” (Olson 16). Certainly one is not exiting from tense and obsessive male ideology in this 1950 Break, but simply altering the narrative from father/son dispositions to something close (boys, brothers), but not exactly the same. Creeley’s statement denying father-son dispositions may summarize their particular relationship and indicate a desire, a tendency, a wish, a hope for a Break with the patriarchal that should be respected as such.[30] However, in the main, Olson worked as a patriarch in poetry; one might point to Olson’s lived relations at least later in his career, when he sought, created, produced, sustained and held to a series of young men whom he consciously viewed as disciples, men who felt in his presence that “we were hunting the secret energy in our own blood” (Moebius 1974, 16). Whatever the male students were enlisted in (a coterie, a homosocial cohort, a vanguard of cultural transformation) was not equally available to women — and there is a curious Olsonic instability on the issue of the intellectual and cultural adequacy of gay men.


This matters because a large part of Olson’s impact was in a person’s enlistment in or engagement with his claims. Simply to read his poetry and essays was to gain only part of what could be gained from immersion in the charisma of the Olsonic world. But women were often explicitly barred by Olson from direct access to that world. As has been documented, Olson made sexist remarks to women in the classroom (mainly sexual innuendo), and sometimes excluded women from the educational experience.


For example, as Michael Davidson has carefully noted, Charles Olson told Nancy Armstrong “that [his] course [at SUNY-Buffalo] was going to be about ‘Men’s Poetry,’ and any women who wanted to attend would have to watch from the hallway” — an incident probably from the first of Olson’s two years at Buffalo, 1963 (Davidson 1995, 204). Of course, Olson was hardly alone in his era in the university — there are plenty of parallel exclusionary or harassing allegations about other professors from other institutions. However, in the building of any cultural capital for the movement of new American poetry, this set of attitudes were a roadblock. It would take at least another generation to erode them within poetry and poetic practice, whether permanently remains to be seen.


H is for Holocaust. Hiroshima. Highways. (“The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 authorized forty-one thousand miles of interstate roads… ” Gitlin, 16). H is for Hoover, for homosexuality. Right-wing J. Edgar Hoover amid his G-Men is now known as a closeted actor within transgender games: precisely in drag. The closet was 1950s sexual containment. H is for Homosociality. Homosexuality.


As Michael Davidson has argued, there was compact of hetero- and homosexual men in the formation of 1950s poetic manhood, no matter the possible homophobia of the straight men, or the exclusionary campiness of the gay men (Davidson 1995).[31] Masculinity in 1950s poetry was produced in an intense homosocial compact, across lines of sexual preference. This homosocial compact was not necessarily interested in triangles of romantic love, using an “exchange of women” to get to male bonding, in the foundational terms Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick set forth. Indeed, in the case of the poetry and letters circulating between Creeley and Olson in their major, staggering correspondence (1950-52, nine volumes for those two years), it was not the naming of homosexual desire (nor a homosocial rivalry over a woman), but the homosociality of admitting male emotion, vulnerability, blockage, passionate cultural desire. The affirmation of male emotionality was crucial. Their homosocial pattern was the accelerated exchange of emotionally complex manhoods with each other: outspoken excess, hysterical intensities of hopes for poetry and for their own achievement were the “feminine” that they exchanged.


Homosexuality was a seriously stigmatized identity/ choice/ set of desires in the 1950s and at any moment, any straight poet could evince homophobia or homosexual panic at the rich homosocial terrain they inhabited (Sedgwick 1985, 89). And yet in these counter-cultural poetries, despite ambivalence to homosexuals even unto homophobia, and despite fear of the effeminate, the construction of masculinity for heterosexual poets was also seriously affected by the sexual frankness and body consciousness of gay male poets and the confrontative flamboyance of non-hegemonic cultural figures who manifested transgressive forms of male display.[32] There was a forceful pressure from homosexuality on straight male self-fashioning, on the male imaginary, on the splits and debates about what masculinity was in the 1950s, given the sensual attention to male embodiment, sexuality, and physicality in overtly gay works.


The New American and Beat poets/ writers resisted, negated, and berated the Organization Men, conformist and centrist types, whether from a position of localist particularity (Creeley) or global entrepreneurial mythopoesis (Olson and Ginsberg).[33] The areas to be avoided in conformist manhood were effeminacy, of course, but also virile display and swashbuckling hyper-masculinity as forms of male masquerade. Yet in the 1950s, certain semi-taboo but attractive cultural icons combined these deviant traits — the James Dean, the Elvis Presley phenomena (of the early and mid 50s) proposed a value in petulant, wilder, bodily display and flaunting of style, and hyper-masculine forms of manhood that were more than slightly scandalous. Alternative poetry was positioned as, and staged as cultural protest against “conformity”; thus it made a discursive identification with virile display and/ or hyper-masculinity in class terms and sexual terms.


Olson’s poem “The Lordly and Isolate Satyrs” (a poem from 1956; Olson CP, 384-87) is a major poem, four pages long, self-consciously examining masculinity, itself a central concern of Olson’s poetry. It is one of Olson’s “Homeric hymns” with very long lines, six or seven full lavish beats each, a poem of grandeur and breadth, reaching behind the façade of civilization for some active, animating principle of power. Using materials from a dream, and in a plural voice (“we” is the pronoun of choice), Olson writes of hyper-masculine “satyrs,” a motorcycle club invading a beach, exhibiting a terrific male power and self-possession that might, if allowed to, complete the speaker as it “completes the beach” by which the poem is set. Their ceremonial emergence and virile display challenges the viewer. Normalcy and the normative have been totally changed. This shift in vision is provoked by their hyper-masculinity, whose climactic image is “their huge third leg like carborundum,” a simile assimilating a penis, a motorcycle, and the trade name of an industrial abrasive (Olson CP, 387). The movement of the poem occurs through the meditative elaboration of the facets or angles of this vision, a recording of the stages of realization in a diction combining the vatic, the discursive and the colloquial.


“One of the most powerful archetypes of manhood” says Peter Schwenger, “is the idea that the real man is the one who acts, rather than the one who contemplates” (Schwenger in Showalter, ed, 110). The binaries of action and contemplation are, however, interestingly modified in this poem. The action of the “we” who speaks the poem is contemplating these avatars, meditating their significance, actively “talking” the poem. The contemplation of the poem is a kind of action, responsive, twisting and braiding a complex reaction to the dream vision. The action of the poem is simply that the motorcyclists show themselves in epiphanic splendor, sitting on their very male equipment; then they start to leave (“now stirring/ to advance, to go on wherever they do go restlessly never completing/ their tour”) (Olson CP, 387). Olson carefully interprets contemplation as action to allow the force of “real manhood” to be distributed to the speaker of the poem.


The speaker evinces identification and wariness: “Hail the ambiguous Fathers… .Hail them, and watch out” (Olson CP, 385).[34] The word “hail” now theoretically marked by its status in an Althusserian understanding of subjectivity, is precisely germane: as the speaker pays ritualized homage to the figures of the motorcycle gang that he has conjured for himself from a dream, these figures from his own subconscious are “hailing” him — calling him into an enriched maleness. The poem offers a narrative in which this onlooker, at first awestruck and fearful of the “monumental solidity” and phallic totality of these invaders, ends by an identification with them. “They are our counterparts” and “they’re here, the Con-/ temporaries. They have come in” are two lines indicating this transformative connection with what, after all, is a “temporary” vision projected from himself, but seems to have been awarded historical status as bringing the self into the absolute present and into an affirmation of phallicity that functioned as a fundamental principle in Olson (Olson CP, 386). The poem provides an account of the bliss of identifying with these Outlaw/ Fathers, and is drenched in pleasure and satisfaction. It is as if Olson has seen a vision of patriarchy itself, and found it good, so good, one must “watch out.” [35] That watchfulness may concern the constant temptation of a taboo and despised homosexuality that might cast a shadow on the power of this eroticized vision.


Thus the poem is the fantasy of patriarchy confronting itself, and completing itself in several ways: with its own mysterious androgyny, its own male/male gaze, its own introjection of the size and outlaw status of some males. The power and the types of maleness evoked are varied, but all are on the periphery of orthopedic masculinity. The poem seems to be a way of recuperating masculinity despite Olson’s macro-cultural analysis of the end of the humanist phase of human history. That is, for Olson, the end of the humanist era of human history is not — repeat, NOT — the end of patriarchy or of the patriarchal era of human history.


The orthopedic center is exactly marginalized, while the marginal men enter into their patriarchal endowment and heritage. The poem gathers these marginals together into one gigantic Male presence, even if the components are uneven, conflicting and vulnerable.[36] The mentions of the Yiddish vegetarian poet, of bodisattvas, and of “on the road” activities make at least part of this work a displaced fantasy about the Beat poets, alluding to Ginsberg, whose poem “Howl,” was one step ahead of Olson in gathering the despised (male) others into a social compact of outsiders.[37] The motorcycle figures have come from Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1954), playing “the tough but sensitive motorcycle gang leader” in one of the breakthrough films about mid-fifties male outlaw figures (Miller & Nowak 333). Other of the male figures manifest wounded maleness: “fifteen year old boys,” “red-neck farmers” (and they, as many figures in Part I of “Howl,” undoubtedly could be identified with actual men).[38] All male figures in the poem can be completed by the solidity and challenge of the “lordly and isolate” figures, “the Fathers behind the father” and “the Androgynes,” who are compared to the hieratic Easter Island statues and to gods (Olson CP, 384). So this motorcycle gang is an amalgam of hypermasculinity, homosociality, male display (“he was dressed in magnificent clothes,” CP 385), and outright phallicism as knowledge.


These figures are “Fathers” but “ambiguous Fathers,” and “the Androgynes/ the Fathers behind the father, the Great Halves” (Olson CP, 384). The speaker sees these male figures in a vision of another side, “the ambiguous Fathers” who open out a whole terrain of manhood that involves the feminine or a nurturing paternal. In this poem, Olson seems to draw on striking a pre-oedipal connection with the maternal father; this poem is illuminated by Freud’s “Wolf-Man” analysis of a “narcissistic masculinity predating the oedipal crisis” that “implies a powerful cathexis of male genitals” (Connell in Brod and Kaufman, 14).


This terrain can also be glossed by Olson’s 1953 poem concerning Melville’s poetry (“The Collected Poems Of” in Olson CP, 278-282), in which he proposes a theory of gender that involves an ideal of male hardness, along with an alchemical tincture of the feminine, so that the base of imagination is the “hermaphrodite” — man who can assimilate the feminine.[39] The lines, from Melville’s poem “After the Pleasure Party,” actually mourn the splitting of the human form into two warring sexes who are slaves to each other, and who may never meet their true other half. The Melville lines that interested Olson read:


If these co-relatives never meet
Self-hood itself seems incomplete.
And such the dicing of blind fate
Few matching halves here meet and mate.
What Cosmic jest or Anarch blunder
The human integral clove asunder
And shied the fractions through life’s gate?

           (Melville 219)


For Olson, rectification of this Anarch blunder of split sexual partners involved giving a different implication to these lines in his poem that reads through Melville. “The Collected Poems Of” discusses maleness as hardness, and interprets the precise nature of the feminine for men. He seems to argue that a male figure can trump this splitting by assimilating the feminine as a further enhancement of his importance; in no sense, in Olson’s view is he feminized. In the “Lordly and Isolate Satyrs,” the mythological figures have totality and presence because they contain both genders while remaining uncompromisingly male. This is signaled by a metaphor of size — the satyrs are larger than us. They are large because they contain the feminine, too; but they are particularly large because they are unremittingly masculine. Thus, in that sense they are “Androgynes.”


My proposition that these counter-cultural poets sought to transform maleness without transforming femaleness is again illustrated by this poem. For at the very center of this poem among these Male avatars is one female, the partner of the Leader in the convertible, described as a “dazzling” figure using hair dye (something still both tacky and glamorous in the 1950s). At first the female figure is not singled out, since “She was as distant as the others. She sat in her flesh too” (Olson CP, 386). Yet the poem’s speaker cannot sustain this similarity between the dream males and the dream female. At the moment of male transformation, the mystery and self-possession of the female figure is neutralized, and she is cut down to size, brought back to the regime of binary and unequal sexual difference. This utopian dream of an enriched center for manhood still works according to normative ideological rules about male and female that keeps females on the periphery. Of the Dream men Olson says: “These are our counterparts, the unknown ones. / They are here. We do not look upon them as invaders. Dimensionally/ they are larger than we — all but the woman. But we are not suddenly / small. We are as we are” (Olson CP, 386). “All but the woman… .”


There is no imagining of female transformation, and further, the female figure cannot, apparently, be larger than the human men in the way the dreamed Fathers are. One cannot “be familiar” with the males, but one could want to “be familiar with” the imagined female (Olson CP, 387). The male speaker(s) accept themselves “as we are” both by introjecting the gigantism of “Fathers behind the father” and at the same time maintaining the female figure not as gigantic, but of a manageable size and of heterosexual access, and thus containing the tremendous male-male eroticism of the dream. Within the dream, love, adoration, touching, caring from man to man are part of this picture, but so is an awe-struck distance: “We have no feeling except love. They are not/ ours. They are of another name. These are what the gods are” (Olson CP, 387). Olson keeps these materials in play, evoking male-male love and eroticism without homosexuality. Indeed, the function of this one female figure in the poem, is as a guarantor of normative sexual desire. She provides the right outlet for all the almost taboo eros of the poem, and has only one other function — to be inferior.


This poem is a collection point for any number of key materials of 1950s counter-cultural maleness: pure phallic imagery, carefully affirmed and carefully managed claims of androgyny, the supplement of femininity without its inferiorizing taint, affirmative heterosexuality, homosocial cohorts without homosexuality, male display and hypermasculinity, marked gender asymmetry or the enforcement of male-female difference, conflicts between actual social power and a sense of powerlessness, even an off-handed, mainly casual misogyny.[40] But many of these traits are as centrist as they are counter-cultural. Where does this leave us?


Such analyses of particular poems by three key counter-cultural poets in the United States context can only make one want to extend in many directions the questions about ideologies and practices of manhood in poetry. From this analysis, one element stands out — no matter the particular style, mode, sexual choices, or practices of these men in their poetic embodiments of “manhood,” all three nevertheless tacitly agreed that the benefits and fascination of investigative manhood stopped at the gender “border,” to use that strange geopolitical metaphor. The benefits and efflorescences that their investigation offered these poets, the rich and exciting ways manhood was used in their poems in image, theme, ideology, were central and defining to their poetic careers. But at the same time, in these works and in the ideologies (and sometimes institutional practices) that sustained the works, “Women” were generally immobile, disenfranchised, possibly reviled — fascinating, sometimes tempting and dangerous — and so forth. That is, in their view of the world in the 1950s, “the female” had little or no counter-cultural or critical possibility. Their sense of manhood was mobile and even grand; their sense of the potential for and in women was static and suspicious.


In the 1950s, three poets offer three kinds of peripheral maleness all examining taboo or counter-cultural forms of masculinity in their poems. One is overt about intense, orgasmic homosexuality as part of transformative vision, another is interested in hyper-scrupulous male self-consciousness and contemplation, and the third draws on the male display of heroes of hyper-masculinity. In specific, individualized ways, all three poets make a critique of hegemonic maleness. At the same time, all draw on ideologies of the center in order actively to resist the sense that textual females (or real women) could themselves have a large stake in the gender shifts in male subjectivity occurring on the counter-cultural periphery. To see men investigate and even change some gender ideas without their appreciating that women could want, in parallel ways, to investigate, and even change gender ideas is to feel a lost opportunity, one on which we might still be able to make good. For these critical poetries of fifty years gone understood only part of what needs to be known, knew only part of what needs to be done.

Swarthmore, PA, 1996–Philadelphia/Umbria, 2006

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[1] DuPlessis would like to extend her thanks to Peter Quartermain for an unflinching reading of this paper in summer 2006, to Libbie Rifkin for her seriously encouraging words, and to John Tranter for generously tolerating authorial diva-dramas.

[2] In his study of Olson, von Hallberg reminds us of that Olson’s achievement were to fuse a political vision and a cultural vision, to insist of the inter-penetration of these realms. It is a lasting aspect of his heritage (von Hallberg 10-21).

[3] This work, originally conceived independently of Michael Davidson’s Guys Like Us: Citing Masculinity in Cold War Politics, now stands in a collegial and confluent relation with his project.

[4] Middleton: “We can all read men’s poetry as men’s poetry… by reading the work reflexively as a negotiation with dominant masculinities, the promptings of a male body, and the placement in a language that speaks too strongly for men” (Middleton, fragmente, 76).

[5] Bob Perelman on Gary Snyder, “Poetry in Theory,” Diacritics 26, 3-4 (Fall-Winter 1996), 163 speaks of “ignoring the masculinist condescension” in a Gary Snyder poem. Of course I am also sympathetic to the desire to ignore lines like “fuck the hag,/ and all the celestial angels/ and maidens perfumed and golden” in favor of another kind of critique of the Snyder poem “What You Should Know to Be a Poet” as “ahistorical, atheoretical.” However, I would engage those latter terms as deeply involving gender questions about poetic practice. Thus I would rather stare those lines, and others like them, straight in the face, and try to unpick the complex of emotions, values, and worldviews that animate them.

[6] Steve Evans exploring what Adorno’s term “determinate negation” might mean for poetry: “the process of determinate negation involves the second of a two-phase operation described in Hegel’s Science of Logic… ’To negate the negation’ means to cancel, undo, or transcend the category that repressively defines and delimits an identity, something Marx wished to do for the category of ‘worker,’ Fanon for ‘the wretched of the earth,’ and feminism for the category of ‘woman’” (Evans 2004, 11).

[7] There are some beginnings in the general study of masculinity--social criticism, sociology, psychoanalytic theory, and historical study, as well as the good-and ambiguous-faith efforts of men’s movements: the HQ 1090’s are beginning to extend over two or three shelves. [HQ1090 is the number in the US Library of Congress cataloguing system for writing about men, maleness, masculinity and so on.] The work in psychoanalytic theory of Kaja Silverman, and the socio-personal reading of culture offered by Peter Middleton bear repeated attention. For other exacting studies of maleness and culture Eve Sedgwick, Gail Bederman, Libbie Rifkin on gender and the poetic career, work by Andrew Mossin and by Eric Keenaghan are vital. For a striking reading of the dialectics of gender — Barrett Watten’s essay on Hettie Jones. There is a coming consolidation of “masculinity studies” with the following consensus, outlined by Judith Kegan Gardiner in the introduction to ed. Gardiner: that maleness as a gender is constructed and reconstructed in social, historical, and ideological processes. That there are numerous ideologies of masculinity and many kinds of maleness. That these vary in historical eras and are drawn upon variously in those eras. That gender issues are inflected with all other kinds of social location from sexuality and ethnicity to age and class. That power and gender inequality exist in the relations between and among genders.

[8] R.W. Connell, “Long and Winding Road: An Outsider’s View of U.S. Masculinity and Feminism.” In Gardiner, ed.

[9] Disneyland, opening in 1955 in California was for social historian Warren Susman “the mythic essence of what life was supposed to be like in the 1940s and 1950s.” (Susman in May 31). “It represents a structure of desire in which the repressed is held down, where nothing is dirty, where everything is manageable and life-sized, where sex and social conflict are eliminated, where the family never changes except to receive more goods and services, where it seems possible for a world of modern culture to satisfy every conceivable want” (33). It is a psycho-historical version of American culture that Susman tell, claiming that valuable cultural materials — from film noir to the Beats — actually allowed the “repressed” to be revealed.

[10] Paul Boyer tracks the intense, diffuse, rich ideological and cultural questions about the atomic age and atomic warfare in The Bomb’s Early Light (1985). About Shoah in “Howl,” it is perhaps hinted at in “who broke down crying in white gymnasiums naked and trembling before the machinery of other skeletons” but this is more overtly about military induction or hospitalization. Ginsberg’s religious affiliation became Buddhist in the post-“Howl” period.

[11] E. L. Doctorow writes: “Every small loss of moral acuity, I see collectively as the secret story of American life under the bomb. It was first our weaponry and then our diplomacy, and now it’s our economy. How can we suppose that something so monstrously powerful would not, after forty years [w. 1987], compose our identity? The great golem we have made against our enemies is our culture, our bomb culture — its logic, its faith, its vision” (Nation, Feb 21, 1987, 331; cited in Breines 207).

[12] The FBI reciprocated with an FBI file on Ginsberg and others that he later, under FOIA received, selected, photocopied, and distributed under the title FBI**Narcotics Bureau**CIA files, “Exemplary Shockers & Smoking Typewriters, 1968-1970 — what is especially interesting in these files are the many tactics the FBI used for “disrupting political minorities” (with informants, disinformation, anonymous letters, spying). While this group of materials is dated later than my timeframe here, it is typical of FBI tactics and collections throughout the period of the 1950s.

[13] For Ginsberg’s specific textual misogyny, see, for instance, the first poem in Ginsberg’s Collected Poems, a work dating from 1947. “Queertalk,” is one of the discourses mentioned; another is “hiptalk.” A third is invective against women “Why you narcissistic bitch!” A fourth is “a violent/ and messianic voice” which prevails, “dominating the whole room.” (CP 3) There is an allegory here about the development of his male voice: the alternative modes (queer, hip, messianic) all seek domination; this task is accomplished by uncompromising positioning of women, whose judgmental opinions are dismissed with cant adjustment-psychology phrases.

[14] An exception that finds female display fascinating (making a camp analysis of it) is John Weiners’ Woman. My findings in part depend on my choice of Ginsberg, Creeley, Olson to discuss. Spicer rejected effeminacy and the feminine (Davidson 1995 and 2004).

[15] McCarthyism was named for a right-wing, thuggish senator from Wisconsin elected in 1946 and dethroned in 1954. He made unsubstantiated, demogogic claims, and thereby spearheaded fierce and damaging anti-leftist and anti-Communist purges in unions, universities, and government, including the erosion of New Deal social policies. But this climate of purge and suspicion was not the work of one individual, but rather “Cold War hysteria” in foreign policy as the Truman Doctrine and at home “in a series of repressive acts aimed at eliminating left-wing activity in labor organizations, government administration, and public culture: the Smith act (1940), the Taft-Hartley Act (1947), the McCarran Internal Security Act (1950), the McCarran-Walter Act (1952), the Communist Control Act (1954).” (Andrew Ross 16).

[16] I will use the book For Love, Poems 1950-1960, citing from this edition even though these poems also appear in Creeley’s Collected Poems. My comments about Creeley’s construction of masculinity in the 1950s do not necessarily implicate his later work in the 1990s and beyond, which would have to be analyzed separately.

[17] Facts gleaned from Faas.

[18] Certainly, as Watten notes, Creeley is well within a “lover’s discourse of tradition”: “alternately aggressive, ameliorative, Christian, sadistic, Petrarchan or anti-Petrarchan, either praising or degrading its object” (Watten 2000, 286).

[19] Many of Creeley’s early poems--“The Whip” (51), “The Way” (72), “A Marriage” (74), “Damon & Pythias” (78), “Sing Song” (92), “The Wife” (154), “Song” (128). -- take place or are set precisely, explicitly in the marital bed, or contain stanzas alluding to that bed and its events.

[20] Davidson is also keen on this point, talking about actual relations with women and their presence in the groups: “In both Beat and Deep Image movements, greater sensitivity or vision is purchased at the expense of women, even when her gender… is invoked as a positive value” (Davidson 1995, 199).

[21] This may be my way of saying what Watten proposed thus: “The halting, indecisive style of Creeley’s work masks, here, a profound strategy of recuperation” (Watten 289).

[22] Kimmel proposes that early work on manhood assumed a symmetry about power later felt to be unproductive. Women were powerless and felt a lack of power, and it was assumed that men were opposite. Yet, although men were “in power,” nonetheless “this power did not translate to a feeling of being powerful at the individual level” (Kimmel in Brod and Kaufman, viii).

[23] One might note Tania Modelski’s terse general observation in Feminism Without Women: “How frequently male subjectivity works to appropriate ‘femininity’ while oppressing women” (Modelski 1991, 7).

[24] Whether this situation “actually” comes from a barroom fight, scenes from WWII (whose violence affected Creeley a good deal), illness, or political threats, the poem (like most of Creeley’s) makes the “Man’s” situation existential, impersonal.

[25] See also the problematic uncomprehension of women in another Creeley piece, “On Love,” Collected Essays 220-223, discussed by Barrett Watten.

[26] For, also in 1974, Creeley eulogizes the “’female principle’” in and of Diane di Prima — generosity, clarity, a “provider of the real” (Essays 287).

[27] One might ask whether the father-son disposition was indeed obsolete as charged. In the letters of the 50s, Creeley signed himself “lad” to Olson, and this articulation of an elder to younger brother disposition is often belied by his canny advice.

[28] These poems are also excluded from Olson’s Selected Writings, edited by Creeley and published in 1966.

[29] Frances Boldereff is discussed by Sharon Thesen and Ralph Maud in their introduction to Boldereff-Olson letters, by Clark in the Olson biography, by Andrew Mossin (2005) by Faas in the biography of young Creeley, by me in Blue Studios (2006).

[30] The evidence of Charles Olson and Ezra Pound: An Encounter at St. Elizabeths shows several problematic issues in the relationship of these poets in the immediate post-war period (1946-48): the clash between Olson’s left-liberalism and Pound’s continuing fascism; the clash between Olson’s desire for a blessing from a poetic father by whom he felt mentored and his yearning to reject and to replace that father. The writing (only a few years before the encounter with Creeley) mixes filial yearning and jealousy, and political fascination and revulsion.

[31] A homosocial thesis animates Ted Pearson’s discussion of Creeley, Tom Clark’s discussion of Olson, and Michael Davidson’s analysis of the “gender of poetics” at this period. For example, from Pearson: “The construction of ‘I’ as a masculine ‘subject’ is determined by his capacity to recognize (both within and beyond himself) an Other ‘male’ who is met in the ‘woman,’ and who, in witnessing ‘I’ perform as a ‘male,’ confirms him as such. It is no great secret that ‘males’ tend to measure their masculinity against other ‘males’ and, in the domain of heterosexist relations, that a ‘woman’ as such can be little more than the medium within or upon which the construction of an arguably homosocial masculinity is inscribed” (Pearson 1991, 163).

[32] It’s not hard to scout the gay male frankness in central poems of masculinity in the 1950s: from the delicious scandal of Duncan’s “cocksuckers” in The Venice Poem (1948) to Allen Ginsberg’s frank and noble gay sex poem, “Many Loves” (CP 156, 1956), to the vatic sublime male sexuality of HOWL (1956), to Spicer’s coterie judgment poems in Admonitions (1958) and elsewhere.

[33] In the 1950s, centrist manhood spoke its name in The Organization Man, a new kind of socio-economic type of large national (now global) corporations. No longer were the small town, local elites, small bankers, businessmen, journalists, producers in small scale production central; they were superceded, by a corporate identity to which one was obliged to conform in dress, attitude, choices — a standardization and flattening of “independent” manhood, as Levittown, also from the 50s, homogenized housing styles. William Whyte's influential, ironic book (1951), analyzing and criticizing the middlebrow sociology and social engineering that supported this ethos, let people know "How to Cheat on Personality Tests" to achieve the centrist, normal, run-of-the-mill answers and to conceal any social deviance.

[34] As I have noted, this poem is astonishingly not one that Creeley selects for his version of Olson’s Selected Poems in 1993 nor for the Selected Writings of 1965, perhaps because of the fullness of its discussion of Fathers, thereby cutting against Creeley’s denial of the “father-son disposition” in Olson. The poem has some similarities — the magisterial greeting “hail” — with the 1955 “A Newly discovered ‘Homeric’ Hymn” dedicated to the classicist Jane Harrison. This much shorter poem is structured of repetition like a sestina. It is a haunted poem about the pressure of the strong dead, demanding how to get things from them without being taken over. The “pot” and its fecundity that is at issue is an androgynous, gender mobile set of images, suggesting fellatio or male pregnancy (seeds in mouth), suggesting womanhood from which man drinks, and the inspiration of initiates into a dangerous site (death).

[35] A pleasure and eroticism that extends to Olson’s appreciation of the first publication of this poem, in Evergreen Review, Spring 1958. Praising, with rich sexual and narcissistic language, editor Donald Allen’s photograph of motorcyclists on the cover, Olson writes “Did anyone tell you how it is to be put out there by another man who has covered you like your own skin?” (Maud. ed, Olson 2000, 273).

[36] There are almost gratuitous “red-headed people,” an image that seems to be a refraction of Olson’s conflict-laden relation with Pound (a red-head), or even an image of the penis itself. On the double meaning of the red head; Pound is called “Big Red” in the correspondence (Olson-Creeley, vol. 7, 245) This because of a circuitous explanation for Olson’s realization that a certain Mayan figure resembles the red priapus figures of Greek culture, herms. As Olson says about the red herms in the ancient world, “my assumption is that [the ancients] took the phallus--& sex — as simply man’s most immediate way of knowing nature’s powers” (Olson, Origin 57, 58). The letter is from 1951.

[37] Recall, “Howl” was written in 1955, published in 1956. According to Tom Clark, Olson was quite jealous of the Beats, during the later 1950s, as they emerged into notoriety, but this poem offers a purer moment of the formation of an all-male company, by the joining of more normal and outrageously counter-hegemonic figures.

[38] I can’t identify them, but it is notable that Creeley and Olson met fact to face for the first time in 1955 (after four intense years of letter-writing), and Weiners is important at precisely the time in 1955-56 that this poem emerged.

[39] In support of this thesis, Olson cites, and extends (by additional words), a stanza of a poem by Melville from Timoleon, about the tragic splitting asunder of the integral human — a male-female androgyne (CP 282; he cites it accurately in Call Me Ishmael 103).

[40] It only lacks homosexual panic, self-divided “victimized” maleness, and mythologized, a-historic females.